As a consultant, coach or other service provider selling your expertise directly to the marketplace, your professional identity is core to your success in business and reinventing yourself can be tricky. Marketing a high-end programme or service is closely linked to how you position yourself and attract clients to you. Yet, what a lot of business owners experience when they start out that hampers success is nothing short of an identity crisis. That’s what we’re tackling in this article.
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We dive into the big question of reinventing your professional identity – achieving fusion between personal and business branding, a clear and relevant professional identity can be the missing link between marketing and making sales. Why do many of us find it SO hard to pin down this core piece of the marketing puzzle?
If you’re feeling like a bit of a generalist or crafting a new kind of offer and want to get more clarity on this core dimension of marketing a high-end offer, read on. These are all situations I’ve been in, seen others struggle with and helped my clients through. Reinventing your professional identity is something to embrace not fear.
The Origin of a Professional Identity Crisis
Now when I say professional identity or professional reinvention, this isn’t about branding in the sense of logo designs, fonts and colour schemes – that’s just one tiny element when you start to brand yourself. Quick heads up that we’ll be tackling how to create a stand out brand down the line as I’ve a fantastic guest expert lined up for you!
No, before you even start to think about branding, you first need to really know who you are – as an individual, as an expert and as a service provider – that’s what, in marketing terms, we call your “positioning” in the market place.
Today, a consultant or coach’s success is rooted not in versatility and be flexible jack-of-all-trades, it’s in your positioning, being known for doing one specific thing really well – a centre of expertise and of excellence.
According to Tim Williams, author of Positioning for Professionals, when asked whether or not a company’s offerings were “highly differentiated” 80% said yes, yet only 8% of their customers agreed.
So today, we’re going to look at how getting clear and confident in your professional identity helps you establish your expert positioning in the eyes of your target audience and to build your marketing and sales offers with clarity and confidence, authenticity and uniqueness. It’s a key reason why even when you’re a successful consultant, coach or other expert service provider, reinventing your professional identity can be a useful exercise every now and again – whether it’s a reset, refresh or reinvigoration.
And I came across a great little guide on positioning from marketing agency MadTown, so if you want more reasons why you should bother with the whole business of positioning, they give you six really compelling reasons.
Its audience is professional services firms, but I think it applies equally well to solo practitioners and freelancers. In fact, I’ve had this exact conversation with at least two of my clients this month, which is why I really wanted to cover it.
Right so the six reasons they suggest for why positioning matters are…
- You firmly establish your identity – and that’s what we’ll be focusing on today.
- You work with clients you actually enjoy (and say no to the ones you don’t!)
- You generate better leads more often.
- You can focus on doing fewer things better.
- You’re able to charge a price premium because you’re the best in-class.
- You stay relevant in a larger geographical market.
Because the big problem many consultants and coaches have is that until you crack your own code, so to speak, not being clear on your professional identity holds you back from moving other things forward in your business – your marketing, sales and offer – what you deliver. If you were selling widgets, professional identity can help but isn’t a necessity for finding customers. But for professional services, the last thing you want is to end up as a commodity trading on standard prices of the industry rather than on value for money.
Fighting the Labels of our Past
Now, let’s be clear – if you’re NOT fighting demons from past experiences and are crystal clear on your professional identity, if your marketing is humming and generating lots of clients for you, then feel free to skip this article and maybe even the next one where we look at crafting and selling a core offer.
But if you have some uncertainty around what you bring uniquely to the table that helps your target market see you as the right fit for what they need, then it’s worth a read.
Right, let’s go back to the beginning …
When people start a consulting or coaching type business, it’s usually focused around what they used to do for a living working for someone else. Not always, maybe you changed direction entirely – and that’s fine, this will be equally relevant.
In a J-O-B (your job), you have a job title, a job description and a clear role (usually anyway!) so again usually, there’s clarity around your duties and what you do for the organisation, its staff (internally) and/or customers (externally).
In a corporate environment, as an employee (whether that’s public, private, third sector), you join an industry and you fit into a functional team that’s internally-facing, such as HR, IT, Finance, Hospitality, Marketing, PR, R&D or whatever or a specialist team that’s externally-facing, like consulting, training or customer services.
And as you may know, organisations love to create these functional divides, and these different tribes and territories become wrapped tightly around you. Professional identity is not something you get to define by yourself, you just have to accept the one that goes with the job. And over time, these identities can be quite tricky to move out of if you decide to go in a new direction. That’s where professional reinvention comes in – and I talk about that a fair bit in the first part of my book where I focus on leveraging YOU.
When you start up on your OWN, these professional identities, tribes and territories and the titles you get given are REALLY unhelpful. They label you as the same as others in that professional role. And if you’re not paying attention to the need to differentiate and position yourself (in marketing terms), you’re missing a trick for getting noticed and attracting business to you.
You see, we have the power to intentionally define our own professional identity and how we see ourselves in a professional context, as individuals, business owners and industry leaders. We can define it based on our specific area of expertise, based on a specific type of client, or based on our unique process or methodology, or a blend of all three!
Add into the mix your experience and thought leadership and you’ll stand out even stronger in the marketplace.
Without a unique identity you can’t build a personal brand; without a personal brand, you can’t stand out and you’ll be forever doomed to remain a commodity in the eyes of your prospective clientele. And indeed, that’s the situation many professional services end up in. When you begin with defining your professional identity, you can start to share your unique personal story, and build your business brand around it.
Who Dares Wins
Having the entrepreneurial spirit inside me for half my adult life, I’ve always loved the expression ‘Who Dares Wins”. It’s normally credited to the founder of the SAS, Sir David Stirling, but I believe Winston Churchill said in relation to war strategies and of course there’s films and TV programmes that use it, and even Del Boy said it in Only Fools and Horses!
In the context of creating a unique professional identity, who dares wins is about getting bold and creative. Here’s why. First, let’s consider the territory – your industry. Globally, there are literally hundreds of thousands of professional service businesses, and the industry continues to expand as more people change careers and opt to start their own business (out of choice or necessity).
Competition in most every industry has never been fiercer. In the digital age, tech-savvy businesses are increasingly using direct marketing and sales approaches to enjoy extraordinary ease of entry in the marketplace. They’re lacing their websites and social media with compelling, customer-focused and socially-conscious brand stories.
Traditional service businesses are struggling to differentiate themselves not only from digital-native newcomers but from their peers and that seems an easier problem to solve for.
Because in an environment oversaturated with providers, with information, marketing messages and sales offers, focusing on relevance and the specific and timely needs of your target market is way more important than saying the wrong thing in the latest trendy digital format.
While consulting remains an expanding industry, organisations today are either reviewing the way they use consultants or questioning the value and return on investment (ROI) they get from using them. Isn’t it frustrating that you have all this knowledge, expertise and experience yet you can’t seem to connect it with people who want what you have to offer?
Part of this, is the often intangibility of what consulting and coaching services deliver. Even in renowned firms, it’s clear that their consulting is presented in a fairly generalist manner and their only offer is trading their knowledge and “done-for-you” services. This presents a constant struggle to win business, because such consultancy is simply a common commodity.
Unless you’re differentiated, distinctive and offer something tangible, the only “value propositions” that a prospective client can judge you on are cost and locality.
Successful service businesses leverage their unique specialism – they create micro-niches – that is, market segments with very specific problems. (Incidentally, just because it’s a micro-niche doesn’t mean it’s a small segment.)
Specificity creates a very exclusive magnet for attracting the right kind of clients to work with you. Once you have this dialled in, take your expertise and turn it into an effective programme of change for these people.
In her book, Stand Out, Dorie Clark has some great advice. She says:
“In any competitive marketplace, the thing you must avoid at all costs is becoming a commodity – a random, faceless provider who will suffice if the price is low enough. If there’s no customer loyalty, you’re always at risk of being undercut.”
An inability to connect with customers is a big part of the problem for businesses that find themselves lost in the undifferentiated middle of their marketplace. The world is changing rapidly and how you communicate and build relationships, how you harness technology to establish professional visibility and trust, is vastly different today than even just a few years ago.
I really liked how Robert Craven expressed this idea in his book “Grow Your Service Firm”, he states that:
“Experts present themselves in the position of authority or knowledge; they tend to be seen as “positioners” (where they set out to adopt a specific position in the eyes of the customer) rather than “prospectors” (where they are chasing work and clients).”
The common trait is that you’re an expert in your field and, as an expert, you use what you know and can do to help a specific type of person in a specific market achieve a specific outcome that they want and will pay for.
But if you’re unclear on specifically what you do and why you do it, the market can be pretty unforgiving. In order to fulfil your calling, live your message and leverage your expertise, you will need to be capable of clearly articulating what problem you help people resolve, and how you deliver the solution to them as clients.
But even when you succeed with differentiation in positioning terms, without some identity and styling, your brand can come across very very boring. So, I dare you to be different in a creative and bold way – who dares wins, right?!!
In fact, these are all elements that runs through the positioning, branding and pricing dimensions in my iSuccess framework, be unique, be bold and be creative, leverage your individuality and personality, your interests and your story. You can do it in a more imaginative way than you might have done in a corporate or institutional environment.
Discovering Your Unique Differentiators
So think about it, as a consultant, coach or other professional expert service provider, the core of your business is YOU and the engine is driven by a seamless process of how you connect with your potential customers at each stage of the relationship. In my book, I call it client dating and that metaphor can get quite hilarious when you think about how we go about attracting and winning over your perfect partner!
Now when I’m teaching or coaching on differentiating yourself, I often get the response of: that’s all well and good and I totally understand the need to stand out, but HOW do you differentiate yourself from all the other experts out there, especially the big players? What does unique look like?
Simple answer – it looks like YOU.
Brand identity is what you, clients and prospective customers can see. Professional identity is what lies beneath, how you see yourself in terms of your genius zone. More on that later.
Each stage in a prospective client’s journey to becoming a customer, is about deepening the connection, building the bond. Marketing, sales and service delivery all require a firm grasp on your own professional identity, linked to that of your target audience, linked to what that audience wants and is willing to pay a premium to get.
What fuels this flywheel is your expertise – and education is what makes the whole thing run right. This is where things get exciting, because good educational content provides a trust-building bridge between your professional identity that engages your ideal clients and your offer, that is, the programme or service you’re enrolling them into.
In order to “sell” people on you and your expertise, and the value of what you do, you need to cultivate an engaged and responsive audience. And for that, you’re going to need to specialise and create a unique brand message that speaks to the exact segment of the market you want to attract. The more specific you can be, and the more value you provide upfront, the more you’ll stand out and get noticed by the right people.
When you demonstrate and validate how you can help someone before you try to convert or sell them anything, you will attract them very strongly into your sales or sign-up process. And we’re going to dive deeper into the sales side of this in next week’s episode.
For now, let’s just say that having relevant and valuable content is an important pillar for your professional identity and expert authority. One, an education-driven approach more easily fits your professional values as a consultant or coach for how you help people. And two, it engenders the relationship building and trust that’s needed to acquire a high-end client.
Research shows that audiences engage more strongly and are more often persuaded to take the next logical step with you when you share helpful content, explain your point of view and where it comes from, and connect on a human level. Your content doesn’t even have to be polished; it just has to be relevant, valuable and authentic.
No matter what your preferred operational model is, digital or face-to-face or a blend of the two, it’s hard to grow and scale your business significantly without leverage across your marketing, sales AND delivery processes. But you can definitely make significant leverage gains when you improve the effectiveness of your marketing.
What that looks like in practice is being visible, being clear and well-differentiated in the marketplace and/ having a compelling message and irresistible content that really connects with what your ideal clients are looking for. This attraction marketing is how you drive your lead generation and build a targeted and responsive list.
As long as you’re promoting your unique expert system, and the result you deliver for your specific target audience, you can position yourself with confidence, standing by the value of what you help people achieve and the price you charge.
Start Rocking Your Genius
My advice is to get clear on this, claim your professional identity, and start rocking your genius. In my experience, most of the challenges consultants face in producing consistent revenue is linked to ineffective marketing to attract the right clients and/or low profitability of what you’re offering.
And the solution lies partly in making some key mindset shifts and partly in getting really bold in your positioning! There’s a real neuroscience for working on how you see yourself and what you do, the value you provide and the particular nuances that make you special.
In today’s competitive marketplace, it’s not enough to be good at what you do. You have to stand out. Those businesses that hone in on a single idea tend to experience greater success attracting their best clients. Aim to work in your highest “genius zone” and truly believe in the benefits you can bring to your clients.
For professional service providers, this is your zone of excellence or core competency as an expert. If you’re currently quite generalised, you will need to reinvent yourself slightly and rebrand, because survival in an increasingly competitive marketplace means being super strategic and drilling down into a specialist micro-niche in order to stand out.
I’d argue that to be in real alignment with the bigger vision you have for your business, you need to identify an ideal offer within your genius zone that sits in the intersection of what you do (your expertise) and what is profitable to offer the market (client needs) as shown in the figure here. If it’s something you enjoy and fills you with passion and pride too, so much the better!
Once you have this dialled in, you can leverage digital practices to “rock your genius”, grow your client base and scale your business. So it’s worth spending the time to really home in on that core dimension of your professional identity because it’s what underlines your positioning in the marketplace.
Building a Relationship with Your Ideal Audience
People buy from people, so an important element in sharing your professional identity and personal brand is to help your target audience understand why you do what you do, as well as what you do or how you do it.
In your writing, presentations or conversations, you can talk about your why by sharing your beliefs, passion and personal experiences. Being open and authentic in this way attracts a kinship with your ideal audience that’s almost tribal in nature. It helps to highlight the relevance and value of what you provide and the outcomes you help deliver. It helps illuminate your professional identity; what people come to know you best for.
Clarity, relevance and authenticity is what will drive all of your marketing, customer engagement and sales. But communicating your unique value is both an art and a science in the digital world. While producing great copy is a skill most definitely worth cultivating, you first have to sell yourself to yourself.
What I mean by this is you need to have a strong belief that you can deliver what you promise. If you’re not clear yourself about who you are or what you can do, i.e. if you aren’t confident in your own value, you can’t expect your prospective client to be either, and no amount of leverage will help.
This is super important because this aligning to your purpose and targeting a profitable audience is what leads to positioning yourself effectively in the marketplace. It’s woeful to me how many independent consultants and coaches get totally stuck, perplexed and frustrated on this most fundamental element. And most times, they don’t ever realise that brand clarity is the biggest blockage behind their lack of growth.
As your professional identity and brand message are so core to success (and not having this dialled in is the root of many other problems further down the line), I’m going to spend a fair bit of time on this groundwork and what I call “leveraging you”.
In the first sections of the book, we look to strengthen your beliefs in your value to the people you want to serve. When you can make this “first sale” of yourself to yourself, you’ll make way faster progress with everything else you do to grow your business.
Yet, we must avoid making it all about you. You must also be able to look at your brand from the potential customer’s perspective – they need to resonate with what you stand for. Top performing consultants are responding by focusing their marketing on the people they help, the problems they solve and the results they deliver.
Rather than marketing to your CV or the features of your services, instead really focus on the outcomes of what you do.
Establishing an Authority Platform
Professional identity is the first step to leveraging your competitive advantage as an independent expert with regard to profile building, systems building, and assets building. It provides the lift and thrust to build, market, grow and scale your business. It offers a fulcrum for leveraging how you position, package, promote, sell and deliver your products, programs and services.
However, if you’re feeling a little bit lost with where to start to create a unique and compelling positioning statement, then I totally get that. I’ve been there many times over the course of my career and entrepreneurial journey. I share my story in chapter 3 of my book if you’re interested, in fact that whole chapter is all about Leveraging YOU, so hopefully there are plenty of nuggets in there that will help get you on the right track.
Sharing personal stories and talking about why you do what you do is as vital to connecting with your audience as giving value by thought leadership and sharing knowledge. Yet, it’s so often missing in the corporate world of marketing offers. So that’s one easy way to differentiate yourself and become more human than the faceless corporate consulting firms.
Even if your whole business is selling into corporate organisations, institutions or government agencies, the decision makers your marketing is aimed at are still people, human beings.
So I say go ahead and be bold. Share what you’re all about, what you care about, and why it’s important to the people you serve. This immediately delivers a massive dose of authenticity, authority and clarity that strengthens your brand positioning and messaging. Without it, what your offer will feel rather vague, commonplace and directionless to your audience.
I admit it took me a while to really home in on all this, because after a long and varied career, I’d become rather multi-niche. 99% of professionals stay in their “lane” – educators do education, designers do design, accountants do accounting, lawyers do law, plumbers do plumbing, engineers do engineering, and so forth. Well, I’ve never been able to stay in one lane.
I’ve been mixing it up throughout my career. Even in the early years in the education sector, I’ve been a researcher, a teacher, a staff developer, a learning technologist, a project manager and a course designer. Likewise, in business, I’ve not stuck with one industry, but worked in many different industries and across public, private and third sectors.
Talk about an identity crisis! There comes a point when you wonder what you’re good for! Because if you ever look at the job market, they want someone with a profession, a clear career path, people who’ve stayed in their lane. But professional identity is increasingly being reinvented in new and different ways – the job market has yet to catch up. And as a business, what you do needs to be responsive to market shifts. It can’t be limited by the labels of our profession, but driven by the nature of the work, the people you help and result you deliver.
My journey does actually have some patterns, some common themes. So take a look at what’s the golden thread running through all the different things you do in your work and life.
The point is that even with the messes I got into, and the big job of drawing out strands from what I call my “big bucket of spaghetti”, reinventing your professional identity can attract exciting opportunities.
What you do, how you serve, is not set in stone because of the qualifications you have or the job you used to do. It should come from the heart and connect with the people you most want to serve. Whether you’re just setting up in your consulting or coaching business, remember to stand well away from all those others playing the commodity game.
Having said that, it is important you build on the strong foundations laid down from what you have achieved so far. But crucially, your unique expert brand needs to be so specific that it provides a badge of honour and distinguishes you from others in your niche.
One of the hardest concepts to accept in marketing is that generalists get lost in the crowd. To stand out, you need to be a specialist. Pluck out a specific strand where there is a big need or problem then build a distinctive offer around it, which is aimed at the specific audience who has that need or problem. This is how you attract your ideally suited and profitable clients or customers. Your identity and brand should match what these clients are looking for and land within your genius zone.
Marketing a High-End Offer
Having a digital presence around your professional identity is a great advantage for building a distinctive brand and becoming “slightly famous”. Build a platform based on modalities that play to your strengths, be it speaking, writing, teaching, facilitating.
How I do this is by packaging up my services into structured and branded programmes that deliver a specific solution to a specific problem. That may be delivered in different formats, for instance as a one-to-one consulting project or as a group workshop.
Another way to look at defining and positioning your unique expert status is to consider the specific solution – as an outcome, benefit or transformation – that you provide. Even if you’re using PRINCE2 or something standard in your industry, find a way to differentiate what you bring to the table, perhaps simply a novel way to represent your methodology visually. This becomes your unique expert system.
Next, look at the vehicle for delivering this solution, i.e. how you work with your clients, such as one-to-one consulting, virtual coaching, an online course, a physical or digital product.
Being clear on your core business (why, what & how) means you can design your architecture accordingly: create a platform, target your audience, position yourself, package and price your offer, build and scale around one unique solution you deliver.
Professional Reinvention for a Changing World
In the changing world we live in today, business is constantly reinventing itself, which means consultants need to be constantly reinventing themselves too. We need to constantly reaffirm our marketing and messaging and on occasion even reinvent ourselves and change our positioning.
As we touched on earlier, sometimes when you’ve evolved your professional identity over time, you find yourself in a fog because you can’t work out who you are anymore, what you believe in, what you stand for, what you care about. Call it losing your mojo, call it losing focus – sometimes you just lose the plot. When this happened to me personally a few years back now, it was very frustrating and sad, because I’ve always been such a driven and optimistic person.
And it’s not a simple 3-step formula to get it back, despite what some online courses will sell you on. It’s a strategic review at a very deep and personal level – it’s tough, it can take time and you can’t force it. I know, because I’ve had to do it, and it took me many years. If this is where you are, I don’t want that for you. This is why I do what I do.
Okay … I hope that exploration of reinventing your professional identity helps you think through your own pieces of the puzzle, see the main picture not just the edges, and build from the inside out.
Only when you fully own your expert process can you claim your professional identity, create an authentic brand position in the marketplace, and start attracting the clients you really wanted to work with.
So from professional identity and offer positioning, next week, we going to take this a step further and look at the sales process, how to have great discovery conversations with prospective clients that drive the right people to sign up for your programmes and services.
Until then, who dare wins, yes?!!
Ciao ciao for now xox